Coronavirus Florida: Arts groups get federal jobs help – Entertainment – Sarasota Herald-Tribune


Millions awarded to Sarasota-Manatee organizations to bring furloughed employees back to work.

Theaters still may be closed, but thanks to federal Payroll Protection Program money from the Small Business Administration, both Asolo Repertory Theatre and Florida Studio Theatre have been able to bring some of their employees back to work, while others now have help to cover staff who never stopped working.

Both FST and Asolo Rep said they received around $1 million, while Venice Theatre received $340,000 and Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe received about $153,000. Sarasota Orchestra received about $1.2 million. Sarasota Opera and Urbanite Theatre have been told that their applications were approved, but they do not yet know how much they will receive, while other arts organizations are still waiting for word or resubmitting claims in the second round of applications.

The money provided by the CARES act is designed to bring employees back to work and help secure their jobs.

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Joseph McKenna, president and CEO of Sarasota Orchestra, Murray Chase, producing executive director of Venice Theatre, and Julie Leach, executive director of WBTT, said they had not furloughed any employees since performances were shut down because of the coronavirus in mid-March.

“This is going to help us a lot over the next eight weeks,” Chase said.

McKenna said the orchestra’s board of directors had developed a plan to continue paying musicians through the summer even though their season is contractually over. “That will be helped by this loan, which hopefully will create a bridge to a place where we can get back to normal again.”

Asolo Rep laid off 60% of its 200-person staff, including administrative and box office employees, as well as actors who had been scheduled to perform in shows.

With the federal money, it was able to avert 20 pending furloughs and reinstate 36 staff members, including 10 costume shop employees who have been making hundreds of protective face masks for local nonprofits in need.

FST furloughed 30 employees, representing about 60% of its full-time staff, as well as 90 artists and front-of-house workers. Managing Director Rebecca Hopkins said the federal assistance allowed it to bring back the 30 full-time employees at least for the next eight weeks in the artistic, production, facilities and education departments.

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“FST has not hesitated to make the difficult — but necessary — choices that will insure our survival for the future,” Hopkins said. “Funding from the Payroll Protection Program has allowed us to bring back these furloughed staff members and employ many out-of-work artists.”

FST is using some of the federal funds to enhance the creative process. The theater is working with local and national playwrights, including Sarasota writer Larry Parr, to develop new work. The theater staff has been developing new cabaret productions for future seasons and continues to work with four playwrights who have been commissioned to write plays for its Suffragist Project.

The theater also has opened its Green Room Cafe and Bar for curbside pickup and delivery service from its full food and drink menu. It is operating from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.

Michael Donald Edwards, Asolo Rep’s producing artistic director, said the federal funds represent “a vote of confidence” to ensure that the theater will still be around when curtains can rise again.

Managing Director Linda DiGabriele noted that Sarasota’s arts and cultural organizations are one of the largest employers in the county.

‘These same organizations, so important to attracting tourism, will struggle to reopen with social distancing requirements. Without the support of our generous patrons and special programs like the CARES Act, it would be difficult to bridge the damage from this curtailed season to the next season in the fall.”

Asolo Rep has used some of the money to allow its costume shop staff to work from home making protective face masks until they’re able again to turn fabric into dresses and other outfits for new productions.

So far, staff members have made more than 750 masks that have been provided to such organizations as the Friendship Centers, Safe Children Coalition, Meals on Wheels of Sarasota, Visible Mens Academy, Girls Inc. of Sarasota, Baby Basics of Sarasota County Inc., Goodwill Manasota and ALSO Youth. Each one takes 25-30 minutes from cutting to completion, and staff members are using a CDC-approved pattern to build their masks.

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“When it became obvious that face masks were in high demand and that, for the foreseeable future, would become a key part in keeping us safe from the spread of the virus, we all felt this was the perfect way to help out,” said Costume Shop Manager David Covach.

The staff members had been at home and “in a state of abrupt confusion to their daily routines,” he said. “Now we all have a purpose again and feel the joy of contributing to the great needs of our community.”

In addition to the PPP funds, 10 organizations, including Asolo Rep, FST, Sarasota Orchestra, Sarasota Ballet, WBTT and Venice Theatre, will share in $470,000 in bonus arts appreciation grants awarded by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation to help offset losses. The grants range from $30,000 to $70,000. In addition, FST, WBTT, Venice Theatre, Sarasota Opera and Sarasota Orchestra were in the top 15 fundraisers among more than 700 organizations in this year’s Giving Challenge, which overall generated $18 million in donations and matching gifts.

“That money will help immensely,” said Leach, whose organization received $190,000 with matches. “It is more than we expected. We wondered how it would do. It’s humbling, but it shows that people want to keep the cultural life they love in Sarasota. All the arts organizations did well, and it shows that people really care about them.”

McKenna said the results are a “fabulous expression of the generosity of our community as a whole and why Sarasota is a pretty special place.”



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